By Terence Dooley
Nathan Cleverly and Tony Bellew’s rivalry could be set to resume on a new battlefield as both men have accepted that the drain of doing light-heavyweight is counterproductive and are eying the cruiserweight division.
Cleverly, 26-1 (12), lost his WBO title to Sergey Kovalev in August and is now taking on Daniel Ammann in February for the vacant Commonwealth 200lb title. Bellew’s world title dreams were crushed in Canada last month when WBC boss Adonis Stevenson stopped him in the sixth round to keep himself on a collision course with Kovalev. It leaves Stevenson and Kovalev as the two premier men in the division — although I believe that Hopkins would beat both of them — but what does the move up to cruiserweight mean for the two British boxers?
Cleverly and Bellew’s rivalry simmered as they came through the ranks then exploded into life at a May 2011 press conference for a fight that didn’t happen due to the Board’s concerns over Bellew’s weight loss schedule for the short-notice contest. When they did meet, in October of the same year, they produced an intense, close battle that the Welshman won by a tight margin.
A rematch seemed a natural, but Bellew split from Frank Warren, fought as a free agent in his next fight, a win over Danny McIntosh in April 2012, and has since boxed on Eddie Hearn-promoted shows, the world title shot aside. It means that there’s a promotional impasse between the two and there would be a lot to sort out if there were to be a rematch.
Still, a few wins between them, a title here and mandatory slot there, and the two could meet once again. There is every reason to believe that, up a weight division, they will produce a fight as good, if not better, than the first for a number of reasons.
Despite always making the weight limit, Bellew’s career, and successes, at 175lb came against the backdrop of a constant battle against the scales. Not in the sense of him boiling down on fight day or, worse, hitting the sauna day and day out, instead his battle against the poundage was a daily grind underpinned by an asceticism that would be beyond most.
Indeed, Bellew’s intense discipline, desire and hard work were his chief allies during his light-heavyweight run, without them he would never have been able to pick up British, Commonwealth and WBC Silver belts. However, in every fighter’s career there comes a point where the gains of coming down in weight start to diminish and your biggest fight becomes the one you wage against the scales.
Kerry Kayes, who has worked with Bellew since the beginning of his career, knows this better than most. The nutritionist told me that Bellew made the weight well for the Stevenson fight, but is also well aware that the process is a tough one.
During Ricky Hatton’s heyday, Kayes oversaw the world champion’s weight-making programme. Billy Graham, Hatton’s then-trainer, gave him the sizeable task of bringing Hatton down safely and effectively, and he did his job well, as he did with Bellew, while ensuring that, come the weigh-in, “The Hitman” was in the best possible shape.
Bellew, while remaining comfortable and as safe as you can be while making the weight, knows all about the arduous task of going into camp with strict weekly weight-making targets and the agony of calorie counting.
Even with Kayes working his magic, the 31-year-old Scouser, who is a huge, vibrant personality outside the ring, looked physically subdued towards the end of his light-heavyweight career. When Ovill McKenzie twice dropped Bellew during their December 2010 slugfest, he regained his feet and composure to win the fight. When tagged by Stevenson, admittedly a heavier hitter and much better fighter than “The Upsetter”, his senses were scrambled and he looked too weak to recover.
With his diligent approach to training, love of the sport, expert training team and continued input from Kayes, Bellew can use the extra 25lbs to further strengthen himself and we are likely to see “The Bomber” dropping some heavier ordinance at the higher weight, especially when you consider that 200lbs is his walking around weight.
Former WBO world titlist Cleverly, 26, has also decided that the negatives of coming down to 175 are not offset by the gains. Like his domestic rival, the Welshman looked a long way off the pace last time out and has put this down to making the division limit.
He said: “The move up to cruiserweight was much needed though and before I lost to Kovalev I was thinking about it anyway. I’ve been making light-heavy for the last six years and while making the weight was a struggle at times, sometimes my performance didn’t match it. My body has grown more as I’ve matured, but I kept winning at the weight so I didn’t want to change a good thing.”
Ironically, Bellew said the same thing when telling the BBC that he had stayed down at 175 as part of a 'If it’s not broke don’t fix it' approach. Now, though, he has admitted that the time has come to move up, saying: “I think it's time for a new chapter and I'll be making the step up to cruiserweight,” when speaking to www.bbc.co.uk/sport.
Although they are very different, both men are similar in that they made plenty of physical sacrifices to remain in the 175lb mix. Discount the trauma of fight night and consider the sweat they shed in training to remain in the division — that daily, weekly and monthly unseen commitment they made to try to perfect their bodies and craft in the hope of bringing it all together on fight night.
Ultimately, though, the body hits a point where it can still make that climb down to the weight limit, but something is taken from it in the process. When fighters reach this point they either increase their workload or sit down with their team and decide if the sacrifice is still worthwhile.
Cleverly and Bellew have reached this point, and that is good news. That they came to this conclusion around the same time is even better news. If the two opposing camps at the summit of the domestic game can get both men into good, read title-winning, positions and then put politics aside for long enough to make a rematch it would be well-received by the fans and would see both men meet in the best possible physical condition. Fingers crossed.
In effect, a fighter’s actual fighting weight has about as much substance as a unicorn. It is illusory in the sense that for a single day — or in fact an hour or so — it is in line with their fighting weight.
A fighters natural position is his walking around weight. They get themselves down, to their “fighting” (it should really be called “weigh-in”) weight for the few minutes they are on the scales. Almost immediately, their body starts returning to their original state in much the way water will flow from a breached dam in search of the freedom of movement it had lost due to false containment.
It is a cliché, but in the long-term it is all about “living the life” between fights as much as possible. Bellew does this, so when he hits the gym the weight begins to slide off, however he has obviously reached the point where the losses are not offset by the gains. With the step up, Bellew’s dedication to the game and Kayes’s input, the next few years could see the three-time ABA heavyweight title winner finally hit his physical peak.
There are other motives for moving up a weight if you start to struggle at your long-term poundage, as weight loss can result in: ‘[D]ecreased short-term memory, vigor, concentration and self-esteem as well as increased confusion, rage, fatigue, depression and isolation all of which may hamper competitive performance. For example, decreased short-term memory can impact the ability of an athlete to follow his/her coach’s instructions before a match,’ [taken from Weight Loss in Combat Sports: Physiological, Psychological and Performance Effects by Emerson Franchini et al (2012)].
Most boxers want to compete in a single weight class for as long as physically possible to build a following, identity and ranking, yet staying too long at an artificial weight can be physically debilitating. A number of fighters, Oscar De La Hoya and Manny Pacquiao for example, have excelled across the divisions without suffering too much from the ‘complex adaptive process’ that is involved in a step up in weight.
Conversely, though, there are those who see the weight-making process as part and parcel of the Spartan world of professional combat sports. Former British and European light-welterweight champion Pat Barrett had this mind-set during his career. “The Black Flash” actually preferred the struggle to make light-welterweight to the relative ease of doing 147lbs.
“I didn’t want to move up a weight at all,” he said. “Everyone said: ‘Move up a weight you’re struggling to make weight’, but I honestly preferred the hard work of stripping down to the weight. When you have to work hard to make the weight, you are properly in the zone. You get stripped and ripped. I felt strong carrying that extra few pounds, but it wasn’t natural. I was mentally strong, but not physically strong.
“At 10 stone I knew I had all the advantages — like Ricky Hatton did — but at welterweight I didn’t have them, like Ricky again. At welterweight Ricky didn’t have it. He beat Kostya Tszyu at light-welterweight with his strength, but look at him in his fights at welterweight. Certain weight categories suit you, and you have to stay in them. You can move up and make millions but once you move up in weight you lose that strength.”
Other athletes have said the same thing, citing the struggle to come down in weight as part of what it takes to be an elite performer. ‘I think it feels good to lose a couple of kilos before a competition, because I feel that if I did not reduce weight before a competition, then I feel like I'm not going to compete,’ said an athlete who anonymously contributed to Practices of Weight Regulation Among Elite Athletes In Combat Sports: A Matter of Mental Advantage? by Stefan Pettersson et al (2013).
‘If I don't lose weight, then I feel insecure, it feels like I don't know where I am at; I just feel lost. But when I reduce weight, then I feel like it's time for the competition now; I'm ready to compete; I am preparing myself for competition.’
‘It's hard if I'm not reducing weight, you know, it feels a bit strange,’ said another. ‘It's almost as if you have an edge when you have some weight to reduce, because you have to think about what you put into your body, what you do, and about exercise. And maybe walk every damn night and so on just to get your metabolism going and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I don't prepare myself as well nowadays. Previously [before changing to a higher weight class] it was like the weight cut was the first competition, and when you got on the scale and made the weight, it was like, yes! ... and then came the competition.’
In weighing it all up, then, there is no easy "one size fits all solution" to making weight or picking a weight class. Bellew took the right approach by being ultra-dedicated between fights, taking expert advice and, most importantly, realising the time had come to move up to cruiserweight.
Cleverly’s also made the right move. Whatever people think about whether he was comfortable at light-heavyweight or not, the main thing is that the fighter feels at ease in his weight division, both physically and mentally, and brings this feeling of security and ease into the ring and to their performances.
Please send news and views to firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @Terryboxing.Tags: Nathan Cleverly , Tony Bellew